DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - A simmering debate over legalizing and regulating sidewalk vending in Los Angeles appears ready to heat up to a boil. 

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Nearly 200 people flowed into Boyle Heights City Hall on May 28 for the first of four public meetings about a city effort to get a handle on a ubiquitous if illegal practice. The meetings come as city officials have released some early potential guidelines and processes for citywide sidewalk vending. 

Lines are being drawn. At the meeting, groups of vendors repeatedly broke into chants of “Si se puede” and “vendedores unidos” and loudly booed people speaking in opposition to legalizing sidewalk vending. At the same time, a coalition of business improvement districts from across the city have banded together to fight a practice they say could undercut storeowners. Their group has been dubbed the Coalition to Save Small Business.

Downtown stakeholders are among those who claim that, months after discussions on vending began, the city has not adequately addressed the concerns of brick-and-mortar business owners and residents. The fear is that the city will push through a sidewalk vending policy without an effective enforcement plan and without considering the negative impacts to business owners and BIDs, which conduct sidewalk cleanings. 

The Downtown Center, Historic Core, Fashion District and Chinatown BIDs have joined the Coalition to Save Small Business. 

“The competition that small business owners get today from vendors knowingly violating the law is absolutely wrong, and the cops haven’t been able to enforce anything so far,” said Carol Schatz, president and CEO of the Downtown Center BID. “We would like to see regulations that respect the small businesses and residential community that exists, and the resources to properly enforce the regulations.”

Representatives of the L.A. Street Vendor Campaign, meanwhile, say that opponents are attempting to stonewall a policy that would provide guidelines and rules for 10,000 vendors who are trying to make a living.

“We don’t believe that BIDs or business owners have dominion over sidewalk space — it’s a resource for all,” said Mike Dennis, director of community organizing for the East L.A. Community Corporation. “This could be an excellent accelerator for economic development for folks who have no other way to get into a traditional workforce.” 

Despite the divide, City Analyst Felipe Chavez, who is leading the writing of the new ordinance, said the city is far from finalizing any policy and intends to continue seeking feedback. A Downtown Los Angeles meeting will take place Thursday, June 18, at City Hall.

New Ideas

Attempts to regulate vending in Los Angeles go back decades. In 1994, the city passed the Special Sidewalk Vending District Ordinance, which allows people to petition to create areas in which sidewalk vending is legal. It had little impact, as the only designated zone was MacArthur Park.

The most recent effort launched in November 2013, when Ninth District City Councilman Curren Price and 14th District rep José Huizar authored a motion to legalize sidewalk sales of both food and merchandise. A May 2014 report from the city Chief Legislative Analyst’s office recommended a new ordinance. 

Those moves led to the CLA’s new draft guidelines, which offer three models: One would prohibit sidewalk vending everywhere; another would permit street selling citywide with fees and permits; and a third would designate specific vending zones and neighborhood rules.

The city has drafted some early rule proposals. A 12-page report from the County Department of Public Health suggests that all food vendors would have to prepare their wares in an approved commissary and set up “within 200 feet... of approved and readily available toilet and hand washing facilities.”

Additional city guidelines would also keep vendors at least five feet from crosswalks and business entrances, and four feet from an outdoor dining area, among other restrictions.

The city is exploring how many sidewalk vending permits to issue and how many to allow per block, among other parameters, Chavez said. Additional elements under review include hours of operation and a fee structure for permits.

Critics of the plan question whether the city can and would dedicate enough resources to enforce new rules. The CLA is examining three models, with five, nine or 17 citywide Public Works investigators (the programs would cost from $500,000 to $1.7 million a year). 

Refining the details is key for Blair Besten, executive director of the Historic Core BID. While she opposes the current framework, she is open to the idea of permitting sidewalk vending if certain protections for existing businesses are included. She said permit fees should be high enough to cover the cost of strong enforcement. Besten also suggested that the city issue permits for specific locations instead of allowing a vendor to operate anywhere.

“Permanent locations exist in other cities. It makes it possible to have a reasonable number of vendors per block and a curation of what goes where based on existing businesses,” Besten said. “If there’s a ‘lease’ on a certain street corner, a vendor can become part of the community and work with us to contribute to the BID.” 

For many business owners, the chief concern is whether a vendor could set up shop right in front of a store, siphoning potential customers away. That looms large in the mind of Uli Nasibova, owner of Gelateria Uli in the Spring Arcade Building. She said she sympathizes with vendors trying to make a living, but pointed out that they need accountability just like any storefront business.

“I welcome competition on a level playing field,” Nasibova said. “If I’m doing something I’m not supposed to, like being unsanitary, I can be easily busted. I can’t run away from a complaint, my shop is here. But if a vendor is being unsanitary and gets called out, it’s not fair if they can just get up and go somewhere else.”

Move Beyond Stereotypes

For many supporters of legalizing sidewalk vending, the details of regulation are less important than simply decriminalizing the practice. A number of speakers at the Boyle Heights meeting said they have had their carts and merchandise impounded by police or had to pay hefty fines. They also said that working-class Latinos and blacks are impacted more than other groups.

The ELACC’s Dennis said he understands fears that vendors leave trash and serve unsafe food, but urged people to move beyond stereotypes and see them as entrepreneurs who take pride in their business. He pointed to a study from the libertarian Institute of Justice that concluded that food carts outperform food trucks and restaurants on food safety inspections, as well as an Economic Roundtable report that suggested sidewalk vending helps draw more customers to area businesses. 

“When we talk about sidewalk vending, we’re focusing on good actors — vendors who are responsible, clean up their trash, that talk to each other to make sure the neighborhood is safe,” Dennis said. “Anyone who doesn’t do that, it’s a different story. But to blame vendors for all these problems is just unfair.”

The DCBID’s Schatz remains skeptical, however, that allowing sidewalk vending in Downtown will help, not hamper, the economic, business and residential renaissance occurring today. 

“When I started this work in 1990, you could walk for blocks in Downtown without finding a small business of any kind. And every small business that we’ve brought here since that time is a small miracle,” she said. “Unless regulation protects the existing businesses, many of whom are operated by immigrants, many of whom have scraped every nickel together to open a store and pay rent, employ people, and pay taxes, I’m not giving up any one of those businesses to an underdeveloped scheme.”

The city will continue to solicit feedback from the public, and Chavez noted that any policy will rely on input from the City Council’s Economic Development Committee.

In addition to the June 18 Downtown meeting there is a meeting at Van Nuys City Hall on Thursday, June 11, from 6-8 p.m., and a South Los Angeles meeting on June 25.

eddie@downtownnews.com

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2015